We never know his name. He is referred to as “that mysterious boy” (不思議な童子 / fushigi na douji) by one character, but the title of the comic (たまゆら童子 / Tamayura Douji, “The Phantom Boy”) hints broadly at the fact that he’s a spirit and not a human child anyway. Give him a name, and it’s a tossup as to whether he’d take it to heart or just chuckle and look for someone else to give him another. Like the angels in Win Wenders’s Wings of Desire, sometimes he soars above all of human nature and sometimes he drops to earth to experience human nature firsthand.
The best offhand term I have to describe Tamayura Douji is historical fantasia — it’s not intended to be any kind of serious exploration of Japanese history, even if the logo on the spine of the book reads “Jidaigeki Comic Series” (jidaigeki meaning a historical tale). It leaps and floats between characters and events from Japan’s past, linking them through the adventures of the title character. The end result is somewhere between the Classics Illustrated approach seen in other manga (e.g., Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s Sangokushi) and the dreamier, more whimsical — shilling for sentimental — approach used by shōjo manga.
The “will-o’-the-wisp” boy of the title presides (sort of) over a
duel of wits between Sei Shonagon and Lady Murasaki.
Any quibbles you might have with the material or the approach are likely to drop into the background once you open the book and read it. If nothing else, Douji is beautiful to look at on every page and in every panel, with a visual style that mixes classical sumi-e and modern manga. For those who’ve taken the time to dig into the history of manga, there’s less distance between those two poles than you might think — although that doesn’t automatically elevate this into the same stratosphere as the best of either medium. I can’t deny that it has ambition, though, and that alone counts for quite a bit. It’s an attempt to spin together all the different strands of Japan’s quasi-mythologized past on a single loom.
Each chapter in the book is more or less self-contained, with again the grand sweep of history (and the mystery boy himself) being the main unifiers. He’s a witness to a clash of literary wills between Sei Shonagon and Lady Murasaki. He inspires a certain Lady Tokiwa, as both a young girl and a grown woman with three sons, to watch over her children as best she can (which in turn causes her to wonder about that boy, since he clearly hasn’t aged a day in the years between). He encounters one of those children again later — Ushiwaka, later Yoshitsune, and fulfills another bit of legend by sending a host of karasutengu to help him prove his mettle. Ushiwaka whips the whole bunch of them, and after boasting of his prowess, the ghost-boy ambles off giggling: “Maybe I overdid it this time?” By the end of the first book there are enough hints that a larger design is taking shape — even if, again, that design isn’t anything more than a general conceit about the river of the ages.
A good-looking book goes a long way with me, and for that reason I have to be honest about how much of the book’s appeal is entirely visual. But oh, what visuals! Everything from the use of brushwork to tone is impeccable, and the few color plates we get with the book (the cover, the frontispiece) could easily be framed as display pieces. It’s primarily for these things that I find myself looking forward to the other two volumes released so far, even if the book’s fragmented and episodic treatment of Japanese history has its own charm too.
Final note: The title itself gave me ample translation practice. Tamayura means something like “will o’ the wisp”, but Will-O’-The-Wisp Boy is a mouthful and a half, and the banality of the last word somehow brings the others down with a bump. The Phantom Boy is a little less clunky but the whole phrase falls flat on the ears, and doesn’t really convey the almost whimsical, light-hearted spirit that comes across with this character (and which the term will-o’-the-wisp carries with it). For neither the first nor the last time I envy German speakers, since they’d be able to get the whole thing in one nice, poetic-sounding portmanteau: Irrlichtjunge.